Recollections and Letters of General Robert E. Lee

Chapter XII: Lee's Opinion upon the Late War: Corresponds with an Englishman, Herbert C. Saunders

The Document

The papers of which the following are copies were found in General Robert E. Lee's desk in the President's office at Washington and Lee University. On the envelope in which they were inclosed was the following indorsement in General Lee's handwriting:

"London, July 31, 1866.

"Herbert C. Sanders asks permission to publish his conversation with me. August 22d--Refused."

"3 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, July 31, 1866.

"My Dear General Lee: Presuming on the acquaintance with you which I had the honour and pleasure of making last November at Lexington, while travelling in Virginia, I venture now to write to you under these circumstances. You may remember that, at the time I presented to you my letter of introduction, I told you that two other Englishmen, friends of mine, who had come with me to America, were then making a tour through Georgia, the Carolinas, and some other Southern States. One of them, Mr. Kennaway, was so much interested with all he saw, and the people at home have appreciated his letters descriptive of it so well, that he is intending to publish a short account of his visit. Not having, however, had an introduction to yourself, he is anxious to avail himself of the somewhat full accounts I wrote home at the time, descriptive of my most interesting interview with you, and, with this view, he has asked me to put into the shape of a letter all those more prominent points which occur to me as gathered from my letters and my recollection, and which are likely to interest and instruct the English public. I have, after some hesitation, acceded to the request--a hesitation caused mainly by the fact that at the time I saw you I neither prepared my notes with a view to publication nor did I inform you that there was any chance of what you told me being repeated. I may add that I never until a month or two ago had the slightest thought of publishing anything, and, in fact, have constantly resisted the many applications by my friends that I should let my letters see the light. My object in now writing to you is to know whether you have any objection to my giving my friend the inclosed short account of our interview, as it would, I am convinced, add greatly to the interest of the narrative. If you have no objection to this, perhaps you would kindly correct any statements put into your mouth which are not quite accurate, or expunge anything which might prejudice you with the public either of the North or the South, if unluckily anything of this nature should have crept in. My letters, were written a day or two after the conversation, but you had so much of interest and new to tell me that I do not feel sure that I may not have confused names of battles, etc., in some instances. It will be necessary for me to deliver my part of the performance early in September to the publishers, and, therefore, I should feel much obliged by your sending me an answer at your earliest convenience. There will be a mail due here about the first of that month, leaving the United States on Wednesday, the 22d, and I shall, therefore, wait till its arrival before sending my letter to Mr. Kennaway; but should I not hear from you then I shall consider you have no objections to make or alterations to suggest, and act accordingly. If you have any new facts which you think it desirable should be known by the public, it will give me much pleasure to be the medium of their communication.

"I am sure I need scarcely tell you with what keen interest I have read all the accounts from your continent of the proceedings in Congress and elsewhere in connection with the reconstruction of the South. I do sincerely trust it may be eventually effected in a way satisfactory to the South, and I most deeply deplore the steps taken by the Radical side of the House to set the two (North and South) by the ears again. President Johnson's policy seems to me to be that which, if pursued, would be most likely to contribute to the consolidation of the country; but I am both surprised and pained to find how little power the Executive has against so strong a faction as the Radicals, who, while they claim to represent the North, do, in fact, but misrepresent the country. I am sure you will believe that I say with sincerity that I always take great interest in anything I hears said or that I read of yourself, and I am happy to say that, even with all the rancour of the Northern Radicals against the South, it is little they find of ill to say of you.

"Hoping you will not think I am doing wrong in the course I propose to take, and that your answer may be satisfactory, I remain, my dear General Lee,

"Yours very sincerely, Herbert C. Saunders.

"General Robert E. Lee."

"Lexington, Virginia, August 22, 1866.

"Mr. Herbert C. Saunders,

"3 Bolton Gardens, South Kensington, London, England.

"My Dear Mr. Saunders: I received to-day your letter of the 31st ult. What I stated to you in conversation, during the visit which you did me the honour to pay me in November last, was entirely for your own information, and was in no way intended for publication. My only object was to gratify the interest which you apparently evinced on the several topics which were introduced, and to point to facts which you might investigate, if you so desired, in your own way. I have an objection to the publication of my private conversations, which are never intended but for those to whom they are addressed. I cannot, therefore, without an entire disregard of the rule which I have followed in other cases, and in violation of my own sense of propriety, assent to what you propose. I hope, therefore, you will excuse me. What you may think proper to publish I hope will be the result of your own observations and convictions, and not on my authority. In the hasty perusal which I have been obliged to give the manuscript inclosed to me, I perceive many inaccuracies, resulting as much, from my imperfect narrative as from misapprehension on your part. Though fully appreciating your kind wish to correct certain erroneous statements as regards myself, I prefer remaining silent to doing anything that might excite angry discussion at this time, when strong efforts are being made by conservative men, North and South, to sustain President Johnson in his policy, which, I think, offers the only means of healing the lamentable divisions of the country, and which the result of the late convention at Philadelphia gives great promise of doing. Thanking you for the opportunity afforded me of expressing my opinion before executing your purpose, I am, etc.,

"R. E. Lee."

The following is Mr. Saunders' account of the interview:

"On only one subject would he take at any length about his own conduct, and that was with reference to the treatment of the Federal prisoners who had fallen into his hands. He seemed to feel deeply the backhanded stigma cast upon him by his having been included by name in the first indictment framed against Wirz, though he was afterward omitted from the new charges. He explained to me the circumstances under which he had arranged with McClellan for the exchange of prisoners; how he had, after the battles of Manassas, Fredericksburg, and (I think) Chancellorsville, sent all the wounded over to the enemy on the engagement of their generals to parole them. He also told me that on several occasions his commissary generals had come to him after a battle and represented that he had not rations enough both for prisoners and the army when the former had to be sent several days' march to their place of confinement, and he had always given orders that the wants of the prisoners should be first attended to, as from their position they could not save themselves from starvation by foraging or otherwise, as the army could when in straits for provisions. The General also explained how every effort had always been made by the Confederates to do away with the necessity of retaining prisoners by offering every facility for exchange, till at last, when all exchange was refused, they found themselves with 30,000 prisoners for whom they were quite unable to do as much as they wished in the way of food. He stated, furthermore, that many of their hardships arose from the necessity of constantly changing the prisons to prevent recapture. With the management of the prisons he assured me he had no more to do than I had, and did not even know that Wirz was in charge of Andersonville prison (at least, I think he asserted this) till after the war was over. I could quite sympathise with him in his feeling of pain under which his generous nature evidently suffered that the authorities at Washington should have included him and others similarly circumstanced in this charge of cruelty at the time that letters written by himself (General Lee), taken in Richmond when captured, complaining that the troops in his army had actually been for days together on several occasions without an ounce of meat, were in possession of the military authorities.

"When discussing the state of feeling in England with regard to the war, he assured me that it had all along given him the greatest pleasure to feel that the Southern cause had the sympathies of so many in the 'old country,' to which he looked as a second home; but, in answer to my questions, he replied that he had never expected us to give them material aid, and added that he thought all governments were right in studying only the interests of their own people and in not going to war for an 'idea' when they had no distinct cause of quarrel.

"On the subject of slavery, he assured me that he had always been in favour of the emancipation of the negroes, and that in Virginia the feeling had been strongly inclining in the same direction, till the ill-judged enthusiasm (accounting to rancour) of the abolitionists in the North had turned the southern tide of feeling in the other direction. In Virginia, about thirty years ago, an ordinance for the emancipation of the slaves had been rejected by only a small majority, and every one fully expected at the next convention it would have been carried, but for the above cause. He went on to say that there was scarcely a Virginian new who was not glad that the subject had been definitely settled, though nearly all regretted that they had not been wise enough to do it themselves the first year of the war. Allusion was made by him to a conversation he had with a distinguished contryman of mine. He had been visiting a large slave plantation (Shirley) on the James River. The Englishman had told him that the working population were better cared for there than in any country he had ever visited, but that he must never expect an approval of the institution of slavery by England, or aid from her in any cause in which that question was involved. Taking these facts and the well-known antipathy of the mass of the English to the institution in consideration, he said he had never expected help from England. The people 'at the South' (as the expression is), in the main, though scarcely unanimously, seem to hold much the same language as General Lee with reference to our neutrality, and to be much less bitter than Northerners generally-- who, I must confess, in my own opinion, have much less cause to complain of our interpretation of the laws of neutrality than the South. I may mention here, by way of parenthesis, that I was, on two separate occasions (one in Washington and once in Lexington), told that there were many people in the country who wished that General Washington had never lived and that they were still subjects of Queen Victoria; but I should certainly say as a rule the Americans are much too well satisfied with themselves for this feeling to be at all common. General Lee, in the course of this to me most interesting evening's seance, gave me many details of the war too long to put on paper, but, with reference to the small result of their numerous victories, accounted for it in this way: the force which the Confederates brought to bear was so often inferior in numbers to that of the Yankees that the more they followed up the victory against one portion of the enemy's line the more did they lay themselves open to being surrounded by the remainder of the enemy. He likened the operation to a man breasting a wave of the sea, who, as rapidly as he clears a way before him, is enveloped by the very water he has displaced. He spoke of the final surrender as inevitable owing to the superiority in numbers of the enemy. His own army had, during the last few weeks, suffered materially from defection in its ranks, and, discouraged by failures and worn out by hardships, had at the time of the surrender only 7,892 men under arms, and this little army was almost surrounded by one of 100,000. They might, the General said with an air piteous to behold, have cut their way out as they had done before, but, looking upon the struggle as hopeless, I was not surprised to hear him say that he thought it cruel to prolong it. In two other battles he named (Sharpsburg and Chancellorsville, I think he said), the Confederates were to the Federals in point of numbers as 35,000 to 120,000 and 45,000 to 155,000 respectively, so that the mere disparity of numbers was not sufficient to convince him of the necessity of surrender; but feeling that his own army was persuaded of the ultimate hopelessness of the contest as evidenced by their defection, he took the course of surrendering his army in lieu of reserving it for utter annihilation.

"Turning to the political bearing of the important question at issue, the great Southern general gave me, at some length, his feelings with regard to the abstract right of secession. This right, he told me, was held as a constitutional maxim at the South. As to its exercise at the time on the part of the South, he was distinctly opposed, and it was not until Lincoln issued a proclamation for 75,000 men to invade the South, which was deemed clearly unconstitutional, that Virginia withdrew from the United States.

"We discussed a variety of other topics, and, at eleven o'clock when I rose to go, he begged me to stay on, as he found the nights full long. His son, General Custis Lee, who had distinguished himself much during the war, but whom I had not the good fortune of meeting, is the only one of his family at present with him at Lexington, where he occupies the position of a professor in the Military Institute of Virginia. This college had 250 cadets in it when the war broke out, General 'Stonewall' Jackson being one of the professors. At one moment in the war, when the Federal were advancing steadily up the Shenandoah Valley, these youths (from 16 to 22 years of age) were marched to join the Confederate Army, and did good service. In one battle at Newmarket, of which I shall have occasion to speak later in my letters, they distinguished themselves in a conspicuous way under the leadership of Colonel Shipp, who is still their commandant. By a brilliant charge, they contributed, in a great measure, to turn the tide of affairs, losing nine of their number killed and more than forty wounded. General Hunter, on a subsequent occasion, when occupying Lexington with a body of Federal troops, quartered his men in the Military Institute for several days, and, on leaving, had the building--a very handsome and extensive one--fired in numerous places, completely destroying all but the external walls, which now stand. The professors' houses stood in detached positions, and these, too, with the house of Mr. Letcher, a former governor of the State, he also burnt to the ground. The Washington college, the presidency of which General Lee now holds, they also ransacked, destroying everything it contained, and were preparing it for the flames, to which they were with difficulty restrained from devoting it by earnest representations of its strictly educational nature."

Next: Chapter XIII: Family Affairs

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Lee, Robert E. jr., The Recollections & Letters of Robert E. Lee, webpage created by Rickard, J (8 June 2006),

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